The 10 modern moral stories Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski spins are inspired by the Ten Commandments, but do not refer directly to the Biblical text, nor do they apply theological interpretation to it. This is why Kieslowski insists on using only the number of the commandment as the title for each film, and never mentions the commandment itself in the credits.
All 10 stories are placed in the same gray and depressing block of new concrete buildings in a Warsaw suburb, where university professors and taxi drivers live side by side. Leading characters in one episode emerge again, as passersby or secondary characters, in another episode.
The first episode (55 mins.) is about the trust and affection between a father, his son and their personal computers. In the second one (59 mins.), an old doctor is coerced into predicting the chances of one of his patients to survive. His answer shows how unreliable science is.
In the third episode (58 mins.), a man is forced by a former mistress to drive all over town on New Year’s Eve. The fourth (58 mins.) explores the dark, incestuous passions of a daughter for her widowed father. In the fifth (60 mins.), best known in its feature-length film version [A Short Film about Killing, 85 mins.], he points out the fallacy of justice, which demands an eye for an eye.
The sixth (61 mins.), the most romantic of all, deals with the loss of innocence that prevents an older woman from responding to the advances of a much younger man. [Known as A Short Film about Love, 87 mins., in its feature version.] In the seventh episode (57 mins.), a little girl is the object of a ruthless struggle between her mother and her grandmother.
The eighth (56 mins.), the one episode in which ethics are clearly stated as the object of the story, has a professor of ethics faced with her own past and decisions during the Holocaust. The ninth (60 mins.) has an impotent husband struggling helplessly to believe in his wife’s fidelity. The 10th (60 mins.), in which black humor abounds, has destitute brothers fall prey to temptation when they inherit their father’s stamp collection.
Being a pessimist at heart, Kieslowski, who cowrote all 10 scripts, unfolds a variety of human weaknesses, shows how difficult it is to conform to one commandment, let alone 10, and considers human frailty with sympathy but little hope. All the stories involve two or three characters at the most and proceed in a straightforward, unadorned, linear fashion.
It is difficult to single out performances in the uniformly excellent casts, which feature some of the top talent in Poland. One editor and one art director worked on all 10 films, resulting in a steady, unhurried but inexorable rhythm throughout the series. Kieslowski changed cameramen from film to film, not only to accommodate their schedules, but to give a slightly different look to each film.